Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Urban Gothic", (Leisure Fiction), by Brian Keene

“Urban Gothic” bears the marks of a classic Brian Keene “gut punch”: flawed characters plunged into a terrifying scenario that not only pulls mercilessly at the reader's emotions, but also challenges the stomach. Though “Castaways” gives it stiff competition in the gut-churning category, “Urban Gothic” is so evocative of movies like “Wolf Creek” and the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” that its concept is much more tangible, therefore much more terrifying than “Castaways”. A story like this will give anyone pause when considering trespass on old, seemingly abandoned property.

“Shit Happens” - the universal truth of bad things happening to good people, most often unexpectedly. This seems the case when a carload of lifelong friends breaks down in the middle of a Philadelphian ghetto, returning from a concert. Things quickly complicate, however, when they mistake the advances of some neighborhood toughs as threatening and flee into an old, seemingly abandoned Victorian house at the end of the drive. There, they hope to call the police and wait in safety until their arrival.

Safety is short-lived, however - a span of bare minutes. A mighty, cobbled-together sledgehammer swings from the darkness and slaughters two of them, crushing their skulls, pulping their brains. In a heartbeat, the survivors flee deep into the damned house's bowels – only to encounter nightmares beyond their worst reckonings. Inbred cannibals would be acceptable, religious fanatics preferable to the mutated monstrosities waiting in the wet dark beneath the house's foundations. These things care nothing for reason or logic. They feel only one thing: hunger, and they live to feed.

“Urban Gothic” is trademark Keene: fast, thrilling, terrifying, sickening. The story works like a fishhook in your mouth, however: blink, and suddenly you've plunged through eighty pages. What elevates this from being “Castaways” in a house, however, isn't what happens inside, so much, as without: when the neighborhood gang that accidentally scared the friends into the house mobilize and launch a rescue. It's the same thread of substance that runs through many of Keene's novels, elevating them above standard “slack and hash” fare. Regardless of the ending, it gives the reader hope, because characters with principles are moved to action.

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